TIME North Korea

Americans Detained in North Korea Call for U.S. Help

Kenneth Bae, Jeffrey Fowle and Mathew Miller call for a U.S. representative to come to North Korea to make a direct appeal

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(PYONGYANG, North Korea) — North Korea gave foreign media access on Monday to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and — watched by officials as they spoke — called for Washington to send a high-ranking representative to negotiate for their freedom.

Jeffrey Fowle and Mathew Miller said they expect to face trial within a month. But they said they do not know what punishment they could face or what the specific charges against them are. Kenneth Bae, who already is serving a 15-year term, said his health has deteriorated at the labor camp where he works eight hours a day.

The three were allowed to speak briefly with The Associated Press at a meeting center in Pyongyang. North Korean officials were present during the interviews, conducted separately and in different rooms, but did not censor the questions that were asked. The three said they did not know they were going to be interviewed until immediately beforehand.

All said they believe the only solution to their situation is for a U.S. representative to come to North Korea to make a direct appeal.

That has often been North Korea’s bargaining chip in the past, when senior statesmen including former President Bill Clinton made trips to Pyongyang to secure the release of detainees.

North Korea says Fowle and Miller committed hostile acts which violated their status as tourists. It has announced that authorities are preparing for the trial, but has not announced the date.

Fowle arrived in North Korea on April 29. He is suspected of leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin. Christian proselytizing is considered a crime in North Korea. Fowle, 56, lives in Miamisburg, Ohio, where he works in a city streets department. He has a wife and three children aged 9, 10, and 12.

“Within a month I could be sharing a jail cell with Ken Bae,” he said, adding that he hasn’t spoken with his family for three weeks. “I’m desperate to get back to them.”

North Korea says Miller, 24, entered the country on April 10 with a tourist visa, but tore it up at the airport and shouted that he wanted to seek asylum. Miller refused to comment on whether he was seeking asylum.

Bae, a 46-year-old Korean-American missionary, has been held since November 2012. He was moved from a work camp to a hospital because of failing health and weight loss but last month was sent back to the work camp outside of Pyongyang, where he said he does farm-related labor. He said he has lost 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) and has severe back pain, along with a sleep disorder. His family has said his health problems include diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain.

“The only hope that I have is to have someone from the U.S. come,” he said. “But so far, the latest I’ve heard is that there has been no response yet. So I believe that officials here are waiting for that.”

Bae said he did not realize before the trial that he was violating North Korean law, but refused to go into details.

He said the lead up to his trial lasted about four months, but the trial itself only took about an hour. He said he elected not to have a defense attorney because “at that point there was no sense of me to get a lawyer because the only chance I had was to ask for mercy.”

“It was very quick,” he said.

The U.S. has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, to Pyongyang to seek a pardon for Bae and other U.S. detainees, but without success. Washington has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and no embassy in Pyongyang. Instead, the Swedish Embassy takes responsibility for U.S. consular affairs.

Fowle and Miller said they have met with the Swedish ambassador and have been allowed to make phone calls to their relatives.

Though a small number of U.S. citizens visit North Korea each year as tourists, the State Department strongly advises against it. After Miller’s detention, Washington updated its travel warning to note that over the past 18 months, “North Korea detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours.”

North Korea has been strongly pushing tourism lately in an effort to bring in foreign cash. But despite its efforts it remains highly sensitive to any actions it considers political and is particularly wary of anything it deems to be Christian proselytizing.

In March, North Korea deported an Australian missionary detained for spreading Christianity after he apologized and requested forgiveness.

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TIME movies

Sony Will Amend Seth Rogen’s The Interview After North Korean Threats

Little Kim doesn't see the funny side

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Executives at Japanese-owned Sony Pictures appear to have yielded in the face of increasing anger from North Korea over an upcoming comedy flick, The Interview, writes the Hollywood Reporter.

The movie stars Seth Rogen and James Franco, and much to Pyongyang’s dismay its plot follows two American broadcast journalists who are recruited as CIA agents and ordered to assassinate the communist state’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un after they score an interview with him.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the studio plans to digitally alter thousands of buttons worn by extras so that they no longer depict the actual buttons worn by the North Korean military to honor Kim Jong Un and his father Kim Jong Il. Sony is also considering cutting a scene where Kim Jong Un’s face is “melted off graphically in slow motion.”

In June, North Korean authorities labeled the film a “wanton act of terror” and threatened a “merciless” retaliation against the U.S. if the movie was released. The Interview was originally set to hit the big screen in October; however, because of the controversy, its release date has been knocked back to December.

[THR]

TIME South Korea

Pope Francis Arrives in South Korea With a Message for All of Asia

Pope Francis Visits South Korea - DAY 1
Pope Francis walks with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye upon his arrival on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pool—Getty Images

The Vatican says that Catholicism is growing faster in the region than anywhere else on Earth

Making the first trip to Asia by a Pontiff in 15 years, Pope Francis landed in South Korea on Aug. 14, beginning a five-day visit to one of Roman Catholicism’s few regional strongholds.

The Argentine, who made history as the first Latin American Pontiff, took the opportunity to hail the populous continent, where Catholic fervor is burgeoning in contrast to dwindling congregations in Europe. “As I begin my trip, I ask you to join me in praying for Korea and for all of Asia,” tweeted Pope Francis, whose visit will coincide with a large gathering of young Asian Catholics. In January 2015, he will return to Asia, with stops in Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

While in South Korea, the Pontiff will pray for peace for a divided Korean peninsula. On Thursday morning, less than an hour before Pope Francis landed in Seoul — where he was greeted by South Korean President Park Geun-hye, North Korean defectors and families of those who perished in the Sewol ferry disaster in April — North Korea fired three short-range rockets into the sea. Two more followed in the afternoon.

Much like in Eastern Europe during the Iron Curtain years, Catholic churches served as safe havens for South Korean human-rights defenders standing up to the dictatorships that held sway from the 1960s to the late 1980s. But the roots of Catholicism in Korea go back further than that. During his five-day visit, Pope Francis will beatify 124 Korean martyrs, including those who were persecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries by Confucian-bound dynastic rulers wary of foreign faiths. Around 10,000 Koreans are believed to have been killed for their faith.

Asia currently boasts the fewest number of Catholics of any region of the world, with only around 3% of Asians identifying as Catholics, according to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center. But the Vatican claims that Catholicism is growing faster in the region than anywhere else on earth, outstripping even Africa. The greatest numbers live in the Philippines, with roughly 80 million Catholics, or around 85% of the national population. India counts about 20 million believers, and the faith is believed to be growing in Vietnam. Yet tensions between Catholic communities and adherents to majority faiths like Islam have erupted in South Asia and Southeast Asia, sometimes violently.

In South Korea, the Catholic congregation has grown to about 5.4 million, or roughly 10% of the population. President Park was baptized at a Catholic church although her official biography says she holds no religious affiliation. Protestantism remains a more popular religion, although the primacy of evangelical mega-churches appears to have waned from an apex in the mid-90s. (Other South Koreans are Buddhists.)

In China, the ruling Communist Party maintains an official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association that has to answer in part to atheist apparatchiks. The Holy See and Beijing do not have formal diplomatic relations, since China refuses to recognize the Vatican’s sway over what have been termed “underground churches” or those professing loyalty to Rome. Nevertheless, a religious revival in recent years has seen the growth of many faiths, including underground Catholic worship as well as belief in the state-sanctioned church.

In a rare hopeful sign, Pope Francis’ plane was allowed to travel through Chinese air space on its way to South Korea, something his predecessors’ jets had not been able to do. Following papal tradition, Pope Francis issued a radio message to Chinese President Xi Jinping as his plane passed over the People’s Republic. “Upon entering Chinese airspace,” the Pope said, “I extend best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”

Still, some Chinese Catholics who planned to join the Asian Youth Day in South Korea were dissuaded by Chinese authorities. On the Chinese side of the border with North Korea, foreign missionaries and charities (both Catholic and Protestant) have been facing scrutiny in recent weeks for what is officially illegal activity.

Meanwhile, on Monday, in Seoul, Pope Francis plans to hold a special mass praying for peace and reconciliation among the two Koreas. The same day, joint military exercises involving the U.S. and ally South Korea are slated to begin. North Korea will surely not be pleased.

TIME North Korea

North Korea Sends American Missionary Back to Labor Camp

Kenneth Bae
American missionary Kenneth Bae, second from right, arrives to speak to reporters at Pyongyang Friendship Hospital in Pyongyang on Jan. 20, 2014. Kim Kwang Hyon — AP

The State Department has asked that the ailing Kenneth Bae be released on humanitarian grounds

American officials confirmed this week that North Korean authorities sent Kenneth Bae back to a labor camp in late July to continue serving his 15-year sentence, after he was discharged from the Pyongyang Friendship Hospital.

The American missionary has been in Pyongyang’s custody for two years, after he was found guilty of committing “hostile acts” while leading a tour in the city of Rason. The U.S. State Department has repeated its demand that the physically ailing Bae be released immediately.

“We remain gravely concerned about Bae’s health, and we continue to urge [North Korean] authorities to grant Bae special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” read an email by State Department officials that was sent to the Voice of America’s Korean news service.

Swedish officials, who act as diplomatic interlocutors for the U.S. in North Korea, visited the American earlier this week at the unspecified camp — the 12th such meeting between Bae and Sweden’s diplomatic corps since he was arrested. Representatives from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang were unable to comment on the matter when contacted by TIME on Thursday.

Human rights groups slammed the North Korean leadership for continuing to use harsh methods to punish the American.

“Bae, like millions of North Koreans before him, faces injury or death by a regime that systematically employs forced labor to punish anyone that it accuses of undermining the government,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, tells TIME.

Bae’s arrest appears to be part of a wider campaign aimed at curtailing any form of proselytizing in North Korea, where officials view the act as a challenge to the ruling Kim dynasty.

Earlier this summer, two American tourists were imprisoned for allegedly performing acts that undermined the state. One of the men, Jeffrey Fowle, is suspected of leaving behind a Bible at a nightclub in Chongjin, according to the Associated Press.

In May, retired NBA star Dennis Rodman, who is the only American to have met Kim Jong Un, tapped the nation’s “Supreme Leader” to release Bae as a personal favor.

“I’m calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him ‘Kim,’ to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose,” tweeted Rodman.

Kim has yet to be moved, it appears.

TIME South Korea

South Korean Protestants Rally Against Pope Francis’ Visit

South Korea Pope
Workers set a platform as they prepare for a special Korean reconciliation mass by Pope Francis at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on Aug. 12, 2014 Ahn Young-joon—AP

Not everyone is happy about the Pontiff's trip

Around 10,000 South Korean Protestants gathered at a convention center near Seoul on Tuesday to protest Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to the country.

The demonstration, organized by fundamentalist Protestants who view Catholicism as blasphemous, underscores tension among some denominations in South Korea, where nearly 30% of the population is Christian.

Participants in Tuesday’s protests, the Wall Street Journal reports, sought to undermine recent efforts by moderate Protestant leaders to reconcile differences with the country’s Roman Catholic establishment.

Pope Francis arrives on Thursday — making the first papal visit to East Asia in a quarter of a century — and will remain in South Korea for four days, during which he intends to beatify 124 Korean Catholics killed by dynastic leaders in the 18th and 19th centuries and also celebrate Asian Youth Day, a massive convention for the continent’s young Catholics.

There had been hopes that the Pope would be able to preach unity on the Korean peninsula, however these fell flat after authorities in Pyongyang declined his request to visit North Korea. The Associated Press reports that he will nevertheless issue a “message of peace and reconciliation for all Koreans.”

TIME North Korea

The North Koreans Are Unhappy With the U.N.’s Report on Human Rights

A Portrait of North Korea
The Mass Games being performed in Pyongyang. Jonas Gratzer—LightRocket via Getty Images

So they're penning their own

North Korea plans to publish a report on the state of human rights in the country, nearly six months after a U.N. commission released a scathing document on conditions in the reclusive state.

“A report on human rights is to be published in the DPRK (North Korea) by the country’s Association for Human Rights Studies in the near future,” said the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

The aim is to debunk the U.N.’s report, which the North previously said was orchestrated by the U.S. to overthrow the Pyongyang regime.

The new report, the KCNA says, “will show the true picture of the people of the DPRK dynamically advancing toward a brighter and rosy future while enjoying a free and happy life under the socialist system centered on the popular masses.”

The findings documented in the U.N.’s 372-page probe are anything but “rosy,” however. The regime is accused of crimes against humanity and the chair of the commission said they were “strikingly similar” to crimes committed by Nazi Germany in World War II.

“These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” the U.N. study said.

The release date of North Korea’s report has not been disclosed.

TIME North Korea

This Amazing Time-Lapse Video Shows Life Inside Pyongyang

Video producers JT Singh and Rob Whitworth were given permission to film in North Korea's capital if they avoided "construction sites, undeveloped locations or military personnel"

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To much of the outside world, North Korea is a mystery. Little information about North Koreans’ daily lives makes it out of the country, partially because of its citizens disconnectedness and stringent restrictions on foreign visitors to the country. Westerners are accustomed to a gloomy narrative about the country, and famine, electricity shortages, North Korea’s draconian legal system and scarcity of modern luxuries loom large in outsiders’ imaginations.

But video producers JT Singh and Rob Whitworth show North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang in a cheerier light. In a state-sponsored visit, the pair created extensive footage of the city to create a time-lapse video of its people and sights. The two were escorted everywhere they went and were “not allowed to shoot any construction sites, undeveloped locations or military personnel.”

Their footage is detailed and intimate, but the obvious restrictions the pair had in creating the video make for a revealing and strange look at the enigmatic capital.

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TIME North Korea

Activists Send Choco Pies Floating Into North Korea

North Korean defectors and South Korean activists prepare to release balloons to let them fly to the North, carrying chocolate pies and cookies during a rally against the North's recent threat at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom that separates the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, South Korea on July 30, 2014.
North Korean defectors and South Korean activists prepare to release balloons to let them fly to the North, carrying chocolate pies and cookies, at the Imjingak Pavilion in the South Korean town of Paju, near the border village of Panmunjom that separates the two Koreas since the Korean War, on July 30, 2014 Ahn Young-joon—AP

"We will continue to send Choco Pie by balloons"

A year after North Korea cracked down on Choco Pies — marshmallow-filled chocolate cakes originating in South Korea — activists in South Korea sent thousands of the beloved confections over the border via helium balloons, Agence France-Presse reports.

About 200 activists released 50 balloons carrying hundreds of pounds of snacks, including 10,000 Choco Pies.

North Koreans working in South Korean factories in a joint industrial zone received the confections as perks, but their rarity in the North boosted their value and they soon became a sought after commodity. By 2010, according to South Korean media, more than 2 million were traded on the black market every month (though it’s unclear how exactly that figure was determined).

Last May, authorities in Pyongyang ordered the factories to stop handing out Choco Pies.

But on Wednesday, activists — who regularly send leaflets and other items across the border on balloons — said they will continue to deliver the pies across the border.

“We will continue to send Choco Pie by balloons because it is still one of the most popular foodstuffs, especially among hungry North Koreans,” Choo Sun-hee, one of the organizers, told AFP.

[AFP]

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